More union members needed in public office, says AFL-CIO
Braxton Winston, a union stagehand, racial justice activist, and member of IATSE Local 322, is currently running for Charlotte, N.C., City Council. Here, he addresses delegates to the AFL-CIO National Convention in St. Louis, Oct. 22. | Pennsylvania AFL-CIO

ST. LOUIS—“In recent years,” says Resolution 10, which passed unanimously at the national AFL-CIO Convention Sunday afternoon (Oct. 22), “state legislatures have significantly weakened working people’s freedom to prosper. Since 2009, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, West Virginia, and Wisconsin have enacted ‘right to work’ laws, crippling people’s ability to secure fair, equitable treatment at work. In many states, the freedom to negotiate over working conditions has been taken from public employees. State voter suppression and pre-emption laws also have silenced the voice of working people, robbing them of their democratic rights.”

But what would America look like if local elected offices were filled by union members elected with the powerful support of the union movement and the working people who would thrive under pro-labor policies and legislation?

That is the question addressed in the resolution “Encouraging Union Members to Run for Local Public Office,” submitted by the Committee on State and Local Labor Councils and Community Partnerships and the AFL-CIO Executive Council.

One after another, union members at the convention rose, either at the podium on the dais or at the microphones deployed throughout the hall, to testify to the value of this resolution.

Charles Wowkanech, president of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO, spoke glowingly of a program in his state aimed specifically at helping union and pro-labor candidates run for elected office, strengthening the political mechanism by which progressive legislation can pass. We must “tip the balance” at the local and state levels. For after all, it is there, in small towns and cities, where school boards pass budgets and sign contracts with teachers; and in the state houses where legislative committees draw the district lines that will allow for fair, representative government.

In state after state, where Democrats have scored statewide majorities at the ballot box, Republicans have nevertheless claimed the lion’s share of representatives because of gerrymandering. And they continue to get elected because of the voter suppression laws they pass. There is an urgency to undo that damage to democratic principles.

The New Jersey Labor Candidates Program has been effective: Over the past 20 years, 919 union members have been elected to public office in the state, and they are passing laws to benefit working people. One of those people is Keith Kazmark, member of Local 2360 of the American Federation of Teachers, who was elected mayor of Woodland Park, N.J., in 2011 with the benefit of labor help. He is now running for his third term. The fundamentals for all elections are the same, he said, such as training on the issues, fundraising, publicity, and endorsements for the campaign. The main factor is knowing that the house of labor will back you. As volunteers go door to door talking with voters, they can honestly say, “The candidate I’m stumping for will have the back of working families.” The New Jersey program, Mayor Kazmark said, must expand to all 50 states.

The exuberant African-American Braxton Winston, a union stagehand and member of IATSE Local 322, is currently running for Charlotte, N.C., City Council. Citing the founding documents of our nation, he reminded his audience that “a more perfect union” is mentioned at the beginning of our history. “Our Constitution,” he proclaimed, “is our first collective bargaining agreement.” We must aim to create “a collective economy, collective defense, and all-around collective good.”

His city of Charlotte rates 50th out of 50 cities for upward mobility. The people he hopes to serve as a city council member need wages that families can thrive on and a more equal access to technology. In a city dominated by banking and financial institutions, he thanked the Communications Workers Unions as his largest single contributor. “The fist,” he quipped, “is mightier than the single finger,” slyly implying that it’s better to get organized than to get mad.

Another city council candidate, this one from Seattle, was Teresa Mosqueda, who serves as political director of the Washington State Labor Council. She identified herself as a third-generation Chicana, both of whose parents were union members. Her election takes place in two weeks. At this critical time in our country’s history, she said, record numbers of women and people of color are running for office. It’s imperative to get more union members elected. “Who better than us? We will stand up to fight for our own rights, thank you very much.” Every single union in Seattle has endorsed her. Of the almost 100 workers who have gone through the electoral training program in Seattle, 50 are currently planning a run for office.

A number of convention delegates spoke from the floor for Resolution 10. Richard Lanigan from OPEIU urged the AFL-CIO to expand this program nationwide. Ann Twomey, AFT member from N.J., asked voters to “populate all the offices with people who understand labor.” Liz Weight, a Utah state representative, was a professional school teacher, who learned empathy for each of her unique students with their individual talents and needs. That kind of empathy, she said, is what she brings to her legislative work as she considers the needs of all her constituents. When she runs for office, she said, fellow unionists tell her, “I’m in this election for you.”

A California heroine stepped to the mike—Maria Elena Durazo, now with UNITE-HERE but formerly the Secretary-Treasurer of the mighty Los Angeles Federation of Labor. She grew up as a farmworker and became a lifelong union organizer. Now she is running for the California state senate in an election next June. “I never saw myself running for office,” she said. “But if someone like Donald Trump can get elected, then the hardworking men and women of this country can too.”

The 2013 AFL-CIO Convention in Los Angeles passed a similar resolution, and as a result of it, says Resolution 10, “Over the last four years, these specific efforts have supported candidates in seven states, and helped elect union members mayor in Boston and Philadelphia, as well as school board members, city councilors, and county commissioners across the country.”

In light of those successes, Resolution 10 concludes, “we pledge that the AFL-CIO will work with state federations to develop state-level labor candidate programs. State federations and area and central labor councils will work in partnership to train and prepare qualified candidates to run for office, support these candidates with a robust member-to-member voter mobilization program, help these candidates resource and implement their campaigns, and provide strong policy grounding for governance through the use of Common Sense Economics and other means.”

Mike Louis of the Missouri AFL-CIO spoke of two state senators who are union members. “They have the same hearts and the same souls as everyone here in this room,” he assured his listeners as he looked out across the Convention Center gathering. “Take that fire to the floors of every government building in the country.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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